Director Yorgos Lanthimos's 2009 international breakthrough Dogtooth is a bar set so high that you'd not even mind if it he never managed to leap over it again, and yet here we are: just two films later - and the director's first film in a language other than his native Greek (it's English and a tiny dab of French), at that - The Lobster turns out to be even better. The winner of the Jury Prize and the Palm Dog Jury Prize at the 2015 Cannes film festival is hardly less kind in its satiric attack on the basic emotional pillars of human existence than Lanthimos's last two films - Dogtooth was a broadside against nuclear familes, 2011's semi-disappointing Alps was about the grieving process - but it adds a veneer of magical realism that makes the bitterness go down just a tiny bit easier, right up until the non-stop 20 minutes of sucker punches that make up the last act.

One of the great things about The Lobster is that it never comes right out and explains all the rules by which its world works, instead showing it to us in action, letting us scrounge up meaning by assembling bits and pieces scattered across the whole feature. What we know at the beginning is that David (Colin Farrell), the only human in the movie to receive a name, is checking into a hotel with a dog named Bob. The dog used to be his brother. See, the way the hotel works, is that single people (David's just been through a divorce) check in for 45 days, attempting to find a suitable partner from among the other single guests. At the end of their time, they are transformed into the animal of their choosing - David wants to be a lobster, since they live for a long time, and he likes the sea.

How the hell this system came into being, how it works, and if, indeed, the source of all non-human animals in the world are these hapless single folks (that's strongly implied at least once), are among the mysteries The Lobster has zero interest in pursuing. This is all straightforwardly metaphorical anyway: the arbitrary, high-stakes rules of the hotel, and the society we eventually see in which people who aren't romantically attached are judged to be so clearly perverse that they're literally outlawed, are a sardonic mirror image of our own world full of high pressure to find a mate and live a normal life, regardless of whether it's a pleasant fit or not. One of the first things we learn about the hotel is that it offers little room for individual foibles: David can't sign in as bisexual, and he can't even get shoes in half-sizes. Pairings are made according to the most trivial connections, and tested in ludicrous settings. It's a world in which finding the right mate doesn't matter, finding a good enough mate is the only thing anyone cares about. Meanwhile, the outlaw Loners haunting the woods outside the hotel are just as narrow-minded, from the opposite direction: relying emotionally on others is a failing, and finding any kind of real connection between people is a cardinal sin.

The movie portrays a world not just centered around idiotic, arbitrary hoops that we're all forced to jump through in the pursuit of romantic relationships; it's about a world in which we aren't allowed to be ourselves at all. This is never specified in the script by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, happily; it's something that's allowed to simply bleed in through the edges, particularly in the performances by the extraordinary cast - including Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Ashley Jensen, and Angeliki Papoulia as the most important of David's fellow guests, and Lรฉa Seydoux as the tyrannical leader of the Loners - which all revolve around a unified core of incredible, studied disaffection. The film is narrated, mostly, by Rachel Weisz, who also plays the Loner woman that David inevitably falls in love with; her delivery of the narration starts out in the most abrasive way possible, sounding impatient and bossy, telling us a story like she's disgusted with us for having asked her about it. Pretty soon, though, it's clear that everybody in the film talks this way: slightly angry, robotic tones that feel directed everywhere but at the heart. At one point, Weisz narrates David's observation that it's easier to pretend not to feel something than to pretend to feel, and the acting throughout The Lobster follows suit: everybody involved is clearly trying not to feel as hard as they possibly can.

So what we have, then, is a fable about how being a functional member of society can readily involve swallowing down your personality as much as possible and being as far from your true self as you can manage; that's a lesson that goes beyond just the dismal quest to find true love, though the fact that Lanthimos and Filippou frame it in those terms gives the whole thing that much more of a bleak, nasty bite (pound for pound, I think this is an even crueler film than Dogtooth, in part because it is so much more surgical and less grotesque). Not bad for a comedy: a vigorously mean comedy, one in which a man pantomiming his lack of revulsion at the thought of kicking animals to death is meant to be funny; one in which the broadest, most friendly gag comes when the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) announces that couples having irreconcilable fights will be provided with a child, since adding children is always good for the stability of marriages (this is, in fact, my least-favorite part of The Lobster - it all but comes with an ironic "wah-wah" sound effect. But it's still, relatively, the cheeriest gag in the movie). A black comedy, in fact, though "black" still implies more light than the film emits.

Still, it's compulsively watchable, beautiful to look at and astonishingly well-crafted. It's confident and fearless in its subtle world-building, its commitment to an unpleasant tone, and the smart way it follows the scenario through to a logical conclusion - finding that taking a stance as oneself, knowing one's own needs and being proud to present them to the world, can still be a horrible, traumataising, alienating process - that provides the shape of a happy ending without the emotional uplift. It's sublimely gorgeous: Thimios Bakatakis's frighteningly crisp digital cinematography of the Irish coast and forests offers terrific compositions and at time hopelessly florid lighting, but all within a tightly constrained palette. The film looks as chilly and strangled as its characters behave, with even the most poppy colors - rich wood tone, bright blue flowers on the womens' dresses, the green of trees - feeling dredged in a coating of metallic grey. I loved it, even when it was making my stomach churn (which was surprisingly often - takes a lot for a movie to turn a passionate make-out scene into the stuff of a horrifying thriller, but The Lobster catapults past that mark), and I am well aware that most people will not; but boy, do I want to force it on as many people as I can possibly manage.